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Hiking the Kohala Ditch

2006-04-17 18 min read Great Hikes marco

[I found this item on the Internet somewhere – not a hike I have done, but one I want to do. if you wait long enough, you’ll see my version of the same hike! Cool]

It was August of 1977 when Fred Dodge and his two teen-age children, Charlie, 17, and Alyce (Tootsie), 16, and I hiked across the north slope of the Kohala mountain from the end of the road above Pololu Valley to Waipio Valley. I had hiked the Kohala Ditch trail with the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club some years before on a trip organized by Dick Booth, I believe. On that trip we had taken the inland trail, and wound behind a waterfall and in and out of many deep gulches before reaching the end of the trail. This time we stayed on the coastal route, crossing the mouth of Pololu Valley and climbing the wall on the far side. Here the trail forks, with the right branch running up the ridge and eventually connecting with the inland trail in Honokane Nui Valley.

We intended to take the left fork, but it crossed a patch of bare dirt at the junction and was less obvious, so we missed it and hiked some distance up the ridge before realizing our mistake. This is standard procedure for a Dodge-Hall hike. Each of us suffers from the misguided notion that the other one is paying attention and will keep us on the trail! Eventually, we found the right trail, however, and followed it down and across the mouth of Honokane Nui and over the next ridge to a small but lovely campsite near Bill Sproat’s cabin in Honokane Iki. There is a small, but secluded bay at the mouth of Honokane Iki, and I slung my hammock between two trees at the head of this bay, while Fred and his youngsters put up their tent on a flat nearby. Cliffs lined the sides of the little inlet and coconut palms graced the shore at the head. In all, it would be hard to find a more beautiful and tranquil camping spot.

In the morning, I had the usual hassle with Fred over whether to leave at a reasonable hour (the crack of dawn) or sleep late and diddle around until it got nice and hot so we could have a good sweat while climbing the hills and, at the end of the day, have to grope around in the dark to set up camp and fix supper. Fred claims I’ve sometimes insisted that we leave at 4:00 AM. He exaggerates! I may rouse people out of bed at 4:00 AM, but am rarely successful in getting everyone on the trail much before 7:00. We climbed out of the valley and headed up the ridge toward the second junction with the inland trail. We had lunch at a large, old cabin on a dry ridge, above Waipahi Stream, just before the junction. At this time, no one was living along the ditch, and the cabins were no longer being maintained and were becoming dilapidated.

We then joined the inland trail and began to traverse the slope of the Kohala Mountain, winding in and out of gulches large and small. Many of these were sheer-walled and very deeply cut. I remember crossing one plank bridge, no more than 12 or 14 feet long, that spanned a very deep ravine. I dropped a pebble from the center of the span and counted the seconds until it hit bottom. I estimated the floor was nearly 200 feet below us! In many spots, the trail had been hewn into the side of these steep walls. There was one reach where the trail angled upward for quite a long distance along the wall, with an extremely steep, nearly sheer drop to the left, and an equally steep cliff above. I think this was probably in Honopue Valley. As I was ascending this trail, a few hundred yards ahead of the Dodges, I noticed a large black rock lying in the trail a short distance ahead, and thought to myself,

“That rock sure looks like a pig!”

Then it stood up, and I realized I was facing a large black boar! There was a small alcove in the wall at the side of the trail, where the ditch workers had carved out a niche for shelter, I assume, and I wondered if I could duck into that if the boar charged. I didn’t much relish the idea of being cornered in such a small space, but I didn’t want to get knocked off the side of the trail either–it was a long, long way to the bottom. Fortunately, the boar took a good look at me, and turned and trotted out of sight up the path, and we never saw him again. Pigs were abundant along the trail. Fred also had an encounter with one after he’d dropped his pack for a break. He walked up the trail a short distance and encountered a large pig. Reaching reflexively for his machete, he realized he’d left it with his pack. He turned to make a hasty retreat, but looking back, discovered the pig was doing the same. As he said later,

“I guess the way John and I looked was enough to scare anyone!” It started raining that day and we were glad to reach the last of the ditch cabins for the night. This was a small cabin in a very lush, wet-looking area, and we slept on the floor, our last dry night’s sleep for several days. This cabin had a small fire-pit built into one outside wall where it could serve to heat a simple home-made furo. The furo was made of galvanized iron and just large enough for one person to squat in comfortably. It must have been quite a luxury for the ditch tenders to relax in this hot bath after a long day of patrolling the ditch in the cold and wet. We found a patch of watercress in a wet spot near the cabin and picked some for a salad. Fred noticed an ancient bottle of vinegar in the cabin. The lid was rusted in place, but he was able to wrench it off, and to our surprise, the vinegar still seemed to be good, so we had watercress salad with vinegar with our supper.

The next day we continued along the ditch in a steady drizzle. It was obvious that few people went beyond the last cabin and the trail was increasingly overgrown and difficult to push through. Eventually, we could no longer identify it at all. According to my old topo map, the Kohala Ditch Trail ends at Waikaloa Stream, but I am not sure we actually got that far. Certainly there was no major stream where we finally lost the trail. A straight line route, as the crow flies, from the end of the trail at Waikaloa Stream to the near side wall of Waimanu Valley is less than two and a half miles long. It was to take us 3 days of hard, wet, miserable, hiking to get there. We were caught in a major storm. The rain never let up for the next 3 days, but maintained a steady, drenching drizzle, quite often with bursts of heavier rain. I had lined my pack with plastic bags, but after this trip I put grommets in the bottom of each compartment to serve as drain holes, as I found that the fabric, while not exactly waterproof, would (and did) hold about an inch of water in each pouch, so that it had every opportunity to find any pin-hole leak in the plastic bags. Fortunately, my sleeping bag and matches stayed reasonably dry. Fred and the kids were not so lucky. They slept in wet sleeping bags.

When we neared the end of the detectable trail, we were in a lush gulch choked with uluhe and other dense vegetation. We took out our machetes and pushed on to the end of the next ridge, and then, trying to find the least precipitous route to the ridge top, carved our way up the steep slope. The going was heavy. At times we could follow a pig trail, but for some reason, the pigs didn’t want to go where we did, so these sections tended to be short. Fortunately, once we were well up on the top, the vegetation thinned out and progress was easier. Much of the slope of the Kohala Mountain in this area approximates the original contour of the shield volcano, lowered somewhat by sheet erosion, perhaps, but fairly flat, with a relatively gentle slope. This mountain is unique in Hawai’i in being covered by vast sheets of sphagnum moss, which coats these slopping plains with an ankle-deep layer of water-filled spongy vegetation. A few scraggly olapa and `ohi’a trees are scattered across this area, most of them not much larger in diameter than my arm. There is not much other vegetation in this boggy terrain. I was fortunate that these frail trees, though they bent, and complained at the weight, were just strong enough to support my hammock with me in it, though I lived in constant fear of being gently lowered into the wet moss every night as I slept. If I had weighed a few pounds more, I might well have been soaked.

Once on this plain, we set a compass course for Waimanu Valley and headed in that direction. Before long, we encountered a gulch too deep to cross and turned uphill to find a spot where it became shallow enough to traverse. The gulches were, of course, steep-walled and filled with dense vegetation, requiring the attention of our machetes to penetrate. Even when we were able to manage the slopes, the streams were a formidable hazard, swollen and swift, filled as they were by the steady rain. Several times we roped up, and also passed the packs across to make crossing in the treacherous waters easier. Even so, more than once we encountered streams we could not safely cross, and had to scramble back up the wall of the ravine the way we had come, and push on up the mountain again until the stream became more fordable. Once across, we again set a compass course and proceeded, until the next ravine was reached. In this way we advanced for 3 days, climbing ever higher up the mountain and drawing, we hoped, ever nearer to Waimanu.

The first night in the open, I slung my hammock between two spindly trees, and sitting in it, held my little Bluet butane stove between my feet to keep it from sinking in the sphagnum and turning over. In this way I cooked and ate my supper, sheltered under the tarp which I had stretched over the hammock. Fred, Charlie, and Tootsie found a reasonably level spot, and, since tree ferns were common in the area, cut armloads of fronds to build up a platform on which to pitch their cheap Sears tent. I cannot imagine that it was a very comfortable night for them, but worse was to come.

The rain continued as we proceeded for another day to head for Waimanu. Set a course, strike a gulch, climb the mountain, cross the gully, head for Waimanu, and on and on. Once or twice we startled small pigs that seemed astounded to find us there, and quickly disappeared in the brush. That night, I again found suitably spaced, if unnervingly spindly trees for my hammock, but we were out of tree ferns, and Fred and his family had to pitch their tent directly on a muddy bank. Fred recalls that it was the “most miserable, totally wet, sleepless night we’ve probably ever had.” I was amazed that neither of the youngsters ever complained, though I thought I noticed a certain reluctance to join their Dad and me on trips afterwards. I don’t know how they cooked their meals. One night they ate cold trail snacks, I believe, and the next huddled under a tarp to cook their dinner. Fortunately, I had brought many books of matches, because my hands were constantly wet andI had nothing dry to wipe them on. After lighting the stove once, the book of matches was too damp to use again, so I had to find a fresh one for every meal. As Tootsie said, we were like travelers in the desert, looking and praying for an oasis, except that we were travelers trapped in an eternally wet oasis looking and praying for a spot of desert!

The fifth day began as a repeat of the previous two as we put on wet clothes, wet socks, and wet muddy boots in the rain. I felt sure we should be getting near the trail, which the map showed running down a broad ridge labeled Laupahoehoe 1 to a gauging station and two cabins marked as New USGS camp, and, further down the mountain, Old USGS camp. Of course, the map had been published in 1957 from surveys done several years before, so even the “New USGS camp” must have been at least 20 years old. I believe it was mid-afternoon when we scrambled up out of a gully onto a broad ridge covered with low brush. I was behind the others when I spied what appeared to be a slightly more open line running perpendicular to our course, but it was so faint and indistinct that I could not be certain it was a trail. It could well have been a natural feature that gave the illusion of a track. I called for the others to wait, while I turned right and went up it a few yards. Then I noticed that some stubs were protruding from the ground at the side of the trace–the ends of stems of the brush that had been cleanly sliced on the angle so typical of machete cuts. The cuts were quite old and it was obvious that the trail was no longer used frequently, if at all. I returned to my friends and announced, with a melodramatic flourish, “Either this is the trail or the pigs have started using machetes!”

We turned to the left and followed the dim path downhill for several miles in the fading light. Just before dusk, we saw the welcome sight of a corrugated aluminum roof on the slope below us. The New USGS camp had been built with a timber frame and aluminum walls and roof. The floor had rotted out and collapsed, but there was a pile of left-over aluminum sheets beside the cabin and we carried these inside to provide a floor that would keep us out of the mud and debris. The cabin was in such poor shape that we were not sure whether it was the New or the Old USGS camp, so Fred and I hiked on down the ridge for a quarter mile or so, until we could look down the slope and see the ruins of another camp a mile below us, which must have been the Old camp. I slung my hammock between two posts and the Dodges made themselves comfortable, relatively speaking, on the floor. After two nights in the rain, we were glad to be under roof, as primitive as it was. Fred claims that I slung my hammock under the only sound section of the roof and that they were still exposed to leaks and drips, but he tends to be seditious, and inclined to cast unjustified doubt on the felicity of my arrangements. I’m sure I wouldn’t do such a thing.

During the night we heard some very strange calls outside. It sounded like some night flying bird was abundant in the vicinity, but I could not imagine what the noise could be. I knew there were night herons in the islands, and since the name implied that they were active at night, I thought that perhaps they had a rookery nearby, although there was no open water near large trees in the vicinity such as I believed they would favor for their nests. (After we returned to town, I mentioned these sounds to some of my friends in the Audubon Society, and they urged me to publish a report of the observations in the Elepaio, which I did). Apparently we had stumbled upon a significant colony of Newell’s Shearwater, a sea bird that was known to nest on Kauai where it digs burrows under the uluhe on remote ridges. After our report, one of the Fish and Wildlife experts on the Big Island planned to hike down to the site to confirm the existence of this colony, but I never heard whether this was done.

In the morning we rose to find the weather clearing, and that we were not far from the rim of Waimanu Valley. We hiked makai down the broad slope parallel to the rim until we came to the ridge lying just upvalley from the gulch formed by Wai’ilikahi Stream as it pours over therim of Waimanu Valley as Wai’ilikahi Falls. With backpacks on, the descent of this very steep ridge was a precarious one, but as the alternative was to return the way we had come, we were determined to take it. Fortunately, the mass of uluhe helped to retard our descent, although at one point Tootsie lost her footing and tumbled down the slope a dozen feet or more. Fred was below her, and as she bumped into a tree, which slowed her fall, he was able to grab her. Luckily she was unhurt, and by cautiously picking our way we finally reached the bottom safely.

From above, the valley floor had appeared to be a lush spread of inviting green, a meadow offering easy passage. I had been in Waimanu Valley before, and knew that there was a path leading from the beach up to Wai’ilikahi Falls, but I was not certain how far from it we were, and the guava and Christmas berry bush in that direction appeared to be fairly dense, so I suggested that we cross the valley floor instead. This turned out to be a disastrous miscalculation–one of the worst I have made in a long lifetime devoted to perfecting the art! The lush greenery of the floor was composed of great clumps of some kind of giant grass that towered over our heads while the footing was an irregular tangle of swampy holes and hummocks that required great effort to move through. We should have turned around immediately when we encountered this obstacle course, but we kept thinking it would soon get better. At one point, we even tried to take to the stream, hoping it would be easier walking, but the water was over our heads, so this was not feasible either.

After two hours or so of fighting this morass in the hot sun and high humidity, we approached the palm trees lining the dunes behind the beach, only to find a shallow lagoon lying like a moat across our path. Charlie said later that this crossing of the valley floor was the most miserable, arduous, and unnecessary part of the trip as far as he was concerned. I slung my pack up onto my head and waded out into the muck and water, finding the deepest part came up to my armpits. I’m not sure how the the Dodges were able to get across, but in short order we were at last assembled on the beach, in an idyllic campsite in a valley that seemed completely deserted except for ourselves. We quickly spread out everything we owned to dry and took a dip to get clean, basking in the welcome sun and cool sea breezes, and the chance to be dry for the first time in days.

The next day we discovered that there was a good trail up to Wai’ilikahi Falls, about a 15 minute walk from the beach, and probably only a hundred yards or so from where we had descended the wall of the valley. We spent that day relaxing and drying out in Waimanu Valley, walking up to the falls, and taking a dip in the pool at its foot. I recalled that we had the valley all to ourselves, but one of Fred’s pictures seems to show a stranger in our group at the falls, so perhaps there were a few other people there. In any case, the Valley was certainly much less visited at that time thanit is now. The next day we hiked out the 10 miles to Waipio Valley, meeting a couple of young fellows on their way in to do some conservation work, and taking another swim in a pool along the way. Tootsie startled another pig on a bend of the trail, but in all, the trip was much less eventful than our previous days. We had planned to do the trip in 5 days, but just in case, we carried provisions for 8. Not everything went wrong! It took us exactly 8 days. Fred’s oldest daughter, Francesca, and some friends met us on the other side of Waipio Valley, somewhat concerned as we were later than expected and because of the storm, and took us into town.

Fred said he’d like to do the trip again sometime, but in the reverse direction. Locating the end of the Kohala Ditch Trail from above, however, and finding the right ridge to descend to reach it, would require a degree of clairvoyance, and I could not imagine trying to scale the precipitous Wai’ilikahi Falls ridge through the dense uluhe with a pack on my back, but I guess this goes to show that there are some backpackers even crazier than I am. In any case, we never did. This was a memorable trip, and illustrates Hall’s First Law of Backpacking quite satisfactorily: “A well-planned trip in which everything runs smoothly will soon be forgotten.” It is only when something goes awry and one is successful in surviving perils, mishaps,and misery, enduring acute anxiety, discomfort and exhaustion, but finally emerging more or less unscathed, that one looks back on the expedition in later years and recalls it fondly to mind while reminiscing with the comrades who shared its “delights!”